It was back in January when Pep Guardiola turned his active mind to the problems of the structure of English football for a club with Manchester City’s youth system and ambitions. “Why can we not create Man City or Man United second team and not play in the Championship against Newcastle?” he asked. The answer lies in a mixture of history, identity and entrenched interests.
But Guardiola had drawn inspiration from his homeland. The former manager of Barcelona B knows all too well that the Catalan giants and Real Madrid can provide their prodigies with competitive football in meaningful matches, in leagues with plenty at stake and, unlike English football's reserve system, in front of large crowds. Now, in a way, City have gone better than Barcelona and Real. Their B teams can progress up the Spanish pyramid, but are barred from playing in the Primera Liga. The City Football Group, by taking a 44.3 percent stake in Girona, have representatives there.
The sixth and newest member of their global family may be the most significant for Guardiola. Manchester City’s prolific academy has produced plenty of players without creating a pathway to the first team at the Etihad Stadium. Now the route may entail a diversion via Spain. City’s youngsters can get a grounding in what, technique-wise, is the best league in the world. It seems a final step in the apprenticeship. It is telling that, of the five City players already on loan at Girona, three are 20 and another 19.
That quartet, of Marlos Moreno, Pablo Maffeo, Aleix Garcia and Douglas Luiz, can harbour realistic hopes of progressing to Guardiola’s squad. Girona will benefit, too: City have a marked policy of signing what they term “development players”, talented youngsters that, in other circumstances, Girona may not be able to afford or attract. Their chances of survival in their debut La Liga season seem enhanced now. While City have loaned players to New York, in particular, before, none have returned to cement a place. In the short term, it is likelier a graduate of Girona will.
Part of the rationale behind the CFG is that there can be a commonality of ideas and knowledge. That may be especially pertinent here. Girona appear a very different case to big-city clubs in emerging markets in the United States, Australia and Japan. They are less likely to become a regional power in their own right. Winning is a shared goal across the CFG, but Girona’s immediate definition entails establishing themselves in La Liga.
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It was notable that City chief executive Ferran Soriano referenced the “good football” Girona play in his explanation of the acquisition. Girona should most resemble Manchester City. A capacity to produce and develop more Spanish-style footballers points to Guardiola’s influence remaining long after his reign ends. The aim has long been to have a distinct, aesthetically pleasing, successful brand of play. This should help.
City may face awkward questions about the involvement of Pere Guardiola, Pep’s brother, whose agency also owns 44.3 per cent of Girona. The counter-argument is that, given the price a Premier League club would command, paying £3.5 million (Dh16m) for almost half of a La Liga outfit looks cheap. But if Real and Barcelona are complaining, it may be for different reasons. By finding a top-flight club in a major European league to road-test their prospects, City have stolen a march on them.